We have a guest post today from Helen Lee, editor of the book, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. Helen is an accomplished Asian American Christian woman we’ve admired on this blog before, as DJ Chuang notes in his interview with Helen a couple of years ago, “She is also cofounder of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, and formerly an editor at Christianity Today.” So when she sends us her input on the last week’s controversy, we post it. Plus, it makes a little announcement for how we see this blog growing…enjoy!
I’ve been following the recent controversy surrounding the book Deadly Vipers with great interest. Numerous people that I respect and admire have already made articulate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking assessments about the situation, and I have largely agreed with the sentiment amongst those, Asian American and otherwise, who felt the book’s haphazard use of Asian-related cultural symbols and the regretful choices of marketing strategies were in poor taste. I don’t really want to re-hash why; that seems like old territory now. But I would like to reflect on what I saw amongst those who did not seem to understand the outcry.
I read a number of comments in the blogosphere along the lines of, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is all about,” or “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” or more to the point, “Get over it!” And to some extent, I can understand those reactions. As much as we may try, it is impossible for us to ever fully be able to walk in another’s shoes. I will never know what it is like to grow up as, for example, a Caucasian male here in America. Or a black woman, or a even a Korean-American man. Of course there will be shades of overlap, some larger than others, but we can never really know what another person ‘s life experience is or has been.
That, however, does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to understand. And conversely, those of us who have felt misunderstood in some way must do more to explain our own cultural context and background better. We cannot assume that another person will automatically understand what it means to be Asian American or any other minority in America—and I use the word “minority” loosely, with the knowledge that it will not be long before there is no ethnic majority in the United States, Caucasian or otherwise. We cannot assume that every American company will automatically know what it means to be culturally sensitive to the broad spectrum of diversity present in our country and world today. Perfect cultural understanding is an ideal that may never fully be reached this side of heaven, which means that we all must be willing to show one another grace when we feel someone has wronged us in this area, as well as being quick to offer apologies when we make offenses, which we all have the capacity to do.
So in the meantime, because it could be a long way until the vision of Revelation comes to pass, when every tongue and tribe of every nation bow before the heavenly host in perfect unity, what can we do to further peace and reconciliation amongst those who possess vastly different cultural backgrounds? One simple and yet powerful answer could be this: we need to share our stories with one another with greater regularity, and simultaneously take the time to read and hear the stories of others who are different from us in order to help develop empathy and understanding across the various chasms which divide us, such as race, gender, and class, just to name a few. We particularly need to be willing to reveal our points of pain from the past, not for the sake of trying to bash others, but to provide a window into understanding our experiences that would not be there otherwise.
To this end, a small group of like-minded individuals, who share similar concerns about where to go from the DV controversy, has been in dialogue about creating a place where such narratives could be collected and shared. We’re grateful to David Park, who has offered this blog for this purpose, although narratives will be welcome from any voices, Asian American or not. The details are still being formed, so we’ll let people know at some future date when the site is ready for people to submit their stories. Our hope is that by creating an online portal in which people could come and share their own personal narratives about their cultural backgrounds and the various scars and triumphs they have experienced along the way, they can be encouraged by finding similar stories and seeing that they are not alone, or by educating others through their narratives. It has the potential to become a rich repository of experiences that could help us all become more culturally sensitive, whatever our background, because there is no end to the learning and growing we can each do in this regard.
To illustrate…if I say something like, “I found the promotional videos used by the authors of Deadly Vipers to be offensive for their insensitive characterizations of Asians”, that has one kind of impact. But if I tell you that when I was in college, there was a group of fellow male students (all Caucasian) who regularly called me “Heren Ree” with a mocking Asian accent (despite my protests) and labeled me the “dorm Geisha” whenever I’d bake a batch of cookies to share with my fellow students, that might give a little more insight into why I cringed when I watched those videos.
Or if I were to tell you about the time in sixth grade when my classroom teacher pointed out to the whole class that I couldn’t check the word “Caucasian” in the form we were filling out while everyone else could, and how much shame I felt as the eyes of my classmates peered at me in curiosity, as if I were some sort of circus exhibit…that might help to explain why it is hard to let go of feeling marginalized by the fact that I am of Asian descent, and why it took a long time for me to affirm and appreciate my own ethnic background. Those kinds of early experiences leave deep impressions and are not easily forgotten, yet they can flood your memories when you witness your cultural heritage being flaunted in inappropriate ways.
Or if I were to tell you that my parents have never affirmed my vocational gifts and leanings in the area of writing and publishing because it is not considered as a lucrative or respectable as being a doctor or lawyer, and that most Asian immigrant parents want their children to have the financial security and prestige that they themselves lacked while slaving away at menial jobs after entering this country, then perhaps it’s clearer why there is a dearth of Asian Americans in publishing to help inform editorial and marketing-related decisions, and that young Asian Americans need to be proactively encouraged and mentored (most likely from non-Asian Americans in the industry) in order to consider publishing as a career, since there are so few fellow Asian American role models to lead the way for them.
Or if I tell you that one of the first things I did when we were planning a move to our current neighborhood was to check the demographic breakdown of the local elementary school, to get a sense of whether my son would be the only Asian-American in his class or not; that my heart sank when I saw that despite living in a suburb of Chicagoland, this particular school had very few minorities at all, and that every day I feared that he would get teased or taunted by other children who would label him “different” due to his ethnic background; then perhaps it’s easier to understand that even in this day and age of Obama, race matters, and it makes a difference in my daily, practical life and in the lives of my children.
Incidents such as the Deadly Vipers controversy are important to discuss and understand rather than dismiss, and perhaps these brief tales from my own life help in some small way to explain why Asian Americans reacted as vehemently as they did. Looking towards the future, my hope is that as we share our personal stories and gain a greater understanding of and sensitivity to one another’s cultural contexts, our posture and attitude towards those with different backgrounds from ourselves will be less adversarial and more compassionate. Less “get over it” and more “help me understand.” Hopefully that is something we can all agree on.